SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Tight end Vernon Davis #85 of the San Francisco 49ers is unable to make a catch against cornerback Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third quarter at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
While the rest of the Steelers' defense has gotten younger over the past two seasons, the safeties have remained the same. SS Troy Polamalu, FS Ryan Clark and FS/SS Ryan Mundy will still be the Steelers' three-deep come 2012, and it's hard to take exception to that.
The backend anchor to the league's top passing defense, the unit may not have forced many turnovers (four interceptions between the three of them) but by and large prevented big plays, and helped keep opponents off the scoreboard.
The challenge in 2012 will come in the form of much better quarterbacks on the schedule.
Was the Steelers' secondary improved from 2010 to 2011?
This isn't at all scientific, but it just never felt like it was better, despite being statistically on par in many areas. The complete lack of turnovers was bordering on historic lows, and Polamalu is usually the guy forcing those. It wasn't the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year's best all around season, but it was still effective enough for a 12-4 record and a playoff spot.
Notice how I still haven't answered the question? It's hard to say, but one thing is for sure, they gave up fewer big plays (34 plays of 20+ yards, and three of 40+, compared to 35 and 7 in 2010). That's largely on the safeties.
Was it a mistake to not address either position in the draft?
As it usually is, time will tell. We won't know if any safety in a position for the Steelers to have selected will be worth anything. Odds are someone will produce above the level at which he was taken, and the Hindsight Is 20/20 Cops will be all over the Steelers. As it is, the safety position is solid in Pittsburgh. Like every position on every team, it always helps to have guys to develop, but you aren't able to do that at every position, so they'll have to wait another year.
Knowing Clark will be out for Week 1 at Denver, is there a concern of dropping the second consecutive season opener?
While the Steelers always would have had the possibility (eventuality) of playing in Denver, therefore, being without Ryan Clark, the playoff game last year wasn't even close to the amount of time they now have to prepare for it. It's still a difficult transition, but at the very least, Mundy will enter training camp knowing he's going to have to start; a tough enough task, made even moreso by the presence of Broncos QB Peyton Manning.
Even with Clark, the Steelers will have their hands full in the opener. Denver is a very tough defensive team and winning there is never an easy thing to do. But just like the military, it's Next Man Up in Pittsburgh. Mundy will have to produce.
Will Polamalu remain healthy?
It's almost a given now he's going to get nicked up in one way or another. Lends even more weight to the depth concerns, and how all three of them - Polamalu, Clark and Mundy - can make arguments of being the team's MVP. If any one of them go down for a substantial period of time, it will be interesting to see how the Steelers handle it.
I mentioned the possibility of using rookie LB Sean Spence in a nickel or dime safety role, and while that obviously remains to be seen, it doesn't appear the Steelers have another option that's any more valid than that idea.
CB William Gay moved onto Arizona, and with him left an emergency safety option. CB Bryant McFadden played a little bit as a deep safety over the past year and a half. With neither of those two back, logic would suggest perhaps one of the cornerbacks could be taught a safety role in case of injury.
Will this unit improve on the amount of forced turnovers they had in 2011?
It's hard to miss, honestly. However, it was obvious under the direction of Carnell Lake, the entire secondary, safeties in particular, were more fundamentally sound in coverage, and took less risks. It's hard to argue with the numbers - league's top pass defense in terms of yards per game, gave up less than 15 points a game. But there were times when the defense really needed to step up and get the ball back to the offense. Imagine what another five interceptions over 16 games would have done.
The quarterbacks they faced in 2011 just weren't all that great, were they?
No, and that's a definite concern. With improving passing offenses in Cincinnati and Baltimore, and a non-division schedule that includes both Mannings, Tony Romo and Phillip Rivers, they will be tested in the air more this year than last.
The number of sacks they had (35) won't cut it. Getting to the passer isn't the job of the secondary, but the amount of time in which they can convince a passer to hang onto the ball leads to sacks as well.
The key stat against Denver in the playoffs: Broncos 5 sacks, Steelers 0. Manning is a bit less mobile, as is Rivers and Eli, but they throw well with pressure. Considering that's three games right there, the Steelers will have to lean on their safeties to continue preventing big plays and trying to give the front seven a chance to land on blitzes.